Brick Lane by Monica Ali begins in the village of Gouripur in rural Bangladesh, where Rupban is going into labor two months early with the birth of her eldest daughter, Nazneen. Everyone on hand at the birth, including Rupban’s sister-in-law, Mumtaz, and the village midwife, Banesa, thinks Nazneen dead until she begins kicking and screaming, albeit in a weak and listless way that suggests she could probably use immediate medical attention. Instead of taking Nazneen to a hospital, Rupban decides to leave her daughter to her fate. To the great surprise of friends and family, including her father, Hamid, Nazneen survives and grows up into a plain, thoughtful child who, like her mother, decides that most everything in life should be left to God.
Nazneen’s sister Hasina, on the other hand, is born beautiful and rebellious, and at sixteen elopes in a love marriage with a local boy, much to the fury of Hamid, who keeps vigil at the edge of the village for sixteen days, prepared to chop his daughter’s head off should she return. She does not return, however, and Hamid, a widower following Rupban’s apparently accidental fall onto a sharp spear, arranges for Nazneen to marry Chanu, a forty-something man living in London.
Chanu and Nazneen marry and move to Tower Hamlets, a low-income housing estate in a Bangladeshi immigrant neighborhood in London. Homesick and isolated, Nazneen spends much of her day cooking, tidying up her apartment, and watching her neighbor, a much-tattooed white woman, drink and throw her beer cans out the window. Sometimes Nazneen is visited by Mrs. Islam, an older widow who claims to be an authority on everyone living in Tower Hamlets, and Razia Iqbal, an irreverent yet kind woman with two young children and an angry husband who grows furious whenever she defies his wishes or the conventional expectations of the local Bengali community.
Hasina writes to Nazneen often to tell her about her life with her young husband, Malek, who works on the railway and is, in Hasina’s opinion, exceptionally smart and talented. Hasina intimates in her letters that Malek wishes she were a better wife, but it’s not until Hasina leaves him for Dhaka and a job as a sewing woman in a garment factory that Nazneen finds out the truth: Malek had taken to beating her, so Hasina fled her marriage and threw herself under the protection of Mr. Chowdhury, who becomes her landlord. Since Hasina is often short of money, Mr. Chowdhury charges her discounted rent, saying she is like a daughter to him.
Nazneen tells herself that she is relatively lucky. Chanu, while old and fat, is kind, he does not beat her, and their apartment is nicely furnished with more chairs, cabinets, and end tables than they could possibly need. Sometimes they have the local physician, Dr. Azad, over for dinner and he too is kind to her. Still, Nazneen does not love her husband, and in fact finds his delusions of grandeur pathetic and off-putting. Discontentment eats at her and she glimpses happiness only when watching ice skating on television. Then she closes her eyes and imagines herself skating across an arena to thunderous applause, led by a handsome man who smells of limes. It is not until she gives birth to a son, the beautiful Raqib, that Nazneen experiences true happiness. Nazneen vows to live for her son and to put all of her energies into caring for him and being a good mother. Then, at roughly a year old, Raqib becomes gravely ill and dies, and the novel switches to Hasina’s perspective, told in letters to Nazneen.
Hasina writes to Nazneen about her job in the garment factory, where she has made friends with three fellow sewing women and one young man, Abdul, who always wears a fresh shirt to work. For several months, Hasina is very happy, working at the factory and living the apartment building owned by Mr. Chowdhury, but then rumors begin to circulate about her having sexual relations both with her landlord and Abdul, and Hasina is fired from her position. Mr. Chowdhury, angry with what he sees as Hasina’s betrayal (he, too, has heard the false rumor that Hasina is sleeping with Abdul), brutally rapes her. Hasina writes to Nazneen that she is overcome with shame and despair. Everywhere she looks, she sees evidence of God’s disapproval of her. Eventually, she turns to prostitution.
It would seem that all is lost for Hasina, but then one of her clients, a serious albino man who works as a night shift supervisor at a shoe factory, proposes marriage. Hasina tries to explain that she is not worthy of him, but he will not take no for an answer, so, even though she is still technically Malek’s wife, she marries Ahmed and together they move to a much more prosperous section of the city. Hasina is again very happy for a time, but Ahmed eventually deserts her, and this set of letters ends with Hasina promising to write again when she has a stable address.
Nazneen now has two young daughters—Shahana, who obstinately rejects anything having to do with her parent’s Bengali heritage, and Bibi, who tries tirelessly to please everyone. Chanu, who quit his position as a low-level civil servant just before Raqib’s death, drifts in and out of work, accomplishing nothing. One night, he presents Nazneen with a sewing machine. He soon begins bringing her jeans and skirts and dresses to repair. Nazneen works nonstop and Chanu tells her he is carefully saving the money for their eventual trip home to Bangladesh, where he hopes to make a fresh start.
When Chanu gets a job as a cab driver, a different man brings sewing to Nazneen’s door. This is Karim, the nephew of the owner of the sweatshop for whom she’s been working all this time. Young, passionate, and sure of himself, Karim is everything Chanu is not, and Nazneen falls deeply in love with him. She starts attending meetings of the Bengal Tigers, Karim’s pro-Islam youth group. After a particularly contentious meeting, Nazneen and Karim start sleeping together.
Meanwhile, Hasina has found work as a maid in the household of James and Lovely, a wealthy couple who found her languishing in a Dhaka home for fallen women. Hasina’s jobs are to clean the house and take care of the children, Jimmy and Daisy. Zaid, an eccentric man with a flare for politics and a love of Kung-Fu, does the cooking and gardening. Next door is a maid named Syeeda, with whom Hasina often sits in silence. Syeeda is as satisfied with her life as the beautiful and status-minded Lovely is restless. Sometimes, Hasina goes to the hospital to visit her friend, Monju, who was injured by her husband in an acid attack. Hasina feels lucky to have a safe place to call home and steady work, but nothing in James and Lovely’s house is her own. She, too, grows restless.
Back in London, Nazneen is exhausted both by the effort of trying to keep peace in her home, where Chanu and Shahana are always at each other’s throats, and by the guilt she feels over her affair with Karim. One night, while washing the girl’s clothes, she collapses. She is a victim of, in Chanu’s words, “nervous exhaustion.” For several days Nazneen stays in bed, giving herself over to her sickness. When she can no longer stand Chanu’s pampering, she gets up and begins working again.
Karim, whose visits had suddenly ceased, comes to see her, saying that he’d been out of town for a time, visiting family. Angry with him, Nazneen asks what he sees in her, and he tells her he loves her for the fact that she is real, an authentic village girl, and this reminds Nazneen of something Chanu said when they were first married: that she was unspoiled. Nazneen tells Karim of Chanu’s plans to move the family back home to Bangladesh, and Karim tells her not to go. He advises that she let Chanu go alone and then sue him for divorce on the grounds of desertion.
Nazneen begins sending Hasina some of her sewing money. She does so behind Chanu’s back, and feels guilty about this transgression as well, until she finds out that Chanu has been borrowing money from Mrs. Islam, who is not only an inveterate gossip but a corrupt and cruel usurer. Thanks to Chanu’s incompetence and naivete, he and Nazneen are deep in debt to Mrs. Islam, who uses her sons to intimidate people into paying far more than they owe.
One day, Chanu walks in on Karim using his computer. Nazneen grows convinced that, while he did not actually witness her and Karim making love, Chanu now knows the whole truth, and her guilt grows almost unbearable.
Meanwhile, tensions have been heating up between the Bengal Tigers and the Lion Hearts, a rival white gang on the Tower Hamlets estate, and marches and counter demonstrations are planned and then cancelled and planned again. Chanu, with money from Dr. Azad, finally purchases four plane tickets to Bangladesh, and Nazneen realizes that he is finally going to follow through on something: they are going home.
Hasina sends Nazneen a letter detailing the events leading up to their mother’s death. Having explained to Nazneen that Rupban’s life was made unhappy by Hamid’s philandering (Nazneen did not know their father was unfaithful), Hasina now tells Nazneen that Rupban’s death was not an accident as they had always been led to believe but was, instead, suicide. Suicide is the ultimate sin against God and fate, and Nazneen, who had idolized her mother and thought her without fault, suddenly sees the world in a new way. She decides to take charge of her life.
When Mrs. Islam comes with her sons to collect what is left of the debt Nazneen and Chanu owe her, Nazneen, empowered by what Hasina has told her about Rupban, refuses to pay up. She shows Mrs. Islam the figures she had done. Her calculations show that not only have she and Chanu paid the debt back, but they have handed over at least 300 pounds in interest. Nazneen stubbornly refuses to pay any more.
Later, Nazneen takes a train to see Karim to tell him that they need to end their relationship. She has come to understand that she’d pieced his personality together like one would a quilt, making him up out of what she’d hoped he would be. Now the seams are showing, and she knows that they do not have a future together. For the most part, he takes the news well, assuming that she is breaking up with him because she can longer bear the thought of sinning against God.
Back home, the apartment is a mess of boxes. Nazneen has not yet told Chanu that she is not going with him. He is busy running last minute errands, and she makes dinner for the girls and goes to bed. Sometime in the middle of the night, Bibi wakes her up, informing her that Shahana has run away to avoid having to go to Dhaka with her parents.
In a panic, Nazneen goes out looking for her, ending up on Brick Lane where police are stationed, blocking her progress. They tell her that she can go no further. A disturbance is under way and they have been ordered to clear the area. Nazneen hops a barricade and goes looking for her daughter, finding instead a group of the Bengal Tigers fighting each other. Eventually, she spots Shahana in a nearby restaurant and takes her home.
With only an hour to spare before they were to go to the airport as a family, Nazneen tells Chanu that she is staying behind. He is grieved but understands, just as she understands his reason for going. They hold each other, overwhelmed with sadness.
Time passes and Nazneen and Razia have their own sewing business. Nazneen hears regularly from Chanu, who writes to her from Dhaka about his workout routine and eating habits. She has no idea what he is doing for work and he doesn’t say. He calls once a month as well, and during one call, tells Nazneen that Hasina, whom he saw once at James and Lovely’s, has disappeared again. She has run off with Zaid.
Another year goes by, and Razia, Shahana, and Bibi drag Nazneen onto a bus. They are taking her, blindfolded, into town as a surprise. When they disembark and the blindfold is removed, Nazneen sees that Razia and the girls have brought her to an ice skating rink. Nazneen is reluctant to go out on to the ice. She tells her friend and daughters that she can’t possibly skate in a sari, but Razia replies that this is London, and she can do whatever she wants.